Dr. Asanga Welikala, legal academic and constitutional lawyer, has gone on record saying that while imprisonment over contempt of court is legal, it is increasingly seen as inappropriate and disproportionate. This observation has been made in the context of the jailing last week of Parliamentarian and film star Ranjan Ramanayake to four years rigorous imprisonment on contempt charges. Thanks to television, the country was able to see the actor, screaming and shouting that he had neither robbed, killed nor engaged in drug trafficking and will not apologize, being dragged into a prison vehicle to be taken away to serve his term. He was clearly playing to the cameras as he would have on a film set and put up quite a show.
Readers would remember the highly respected Prof. Carlo Fonseka, Ramanayake’s uncle, accompanying him to court every day at the early stages of the trial which began three years ago. This was before the late professor, frail even then, was physically unable to go to court. This case, as most of them do, dragged on for a long time as is common, or even inevitable, in this country. Most people know that contempt of court is a serious offence and refrain from trifling with the judicial system for fear of punishment. While the courts are not infallible, as demonstrated by higher courts sometimes overturning judgments from lower down, there is no bar on the criticism of judicial decisions. But this must be done, as the text books say, in “chaste language” without scandalizing the court.
It was decades ago that Mr. Herbert Hulugalle, then editor of the “Ceylon Daily News,” was convicted of a contempt offence by a three judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Sir. Sydney Abrahams, then Chief Justice, who later became a Privy Councillor. On the bench with the British CJ were two Ceylonese judges, Justice Akbar and Justice Koch. A fine of thousand rupees – not chicken feed at that time – and imprisonment till the rising of court was imposed on the editor over an editorial titled “Justice on Holiday” which Hulugalle did not write. But as editor, he had to take responsibility for what appeared in his paper. The editorial was written at the instance of D.R. Wijewardene, the legendary Lake House founder. Hulugalle, himself an advocate, sat with the lawyers in the courtroom after his conviction and spent the lunch adjournment with his friend, the Registrar of the court, in the latter’s chambers. Sir Sydney, ostensibly for Hulugalle’s benefit, adjourned court for the day earlier than usual. Wijewardene, no doubt at great expense, took the case right up to the Privy Council in a vain attempt to overturn the judgment.
More recently, Editor Fred Silva, also of the “Daily News” was imprisoned for six months for a newspaper column titled “Dress Sense” that appeared in his paper. This was a comment on different requirements of different courts on how persons appearing before them should be clad – a jacket and tie or national dress as the case may be. It was said there that while one court upbraided someone wearing trousers and an open neck shirt for not appearing in what we Lankans are fond of calling a “full suit,” a witness in another court was giving evidence neatly clad in a white shirt and pair of trousers. Although Silva was convicted and served his sentence, a reporter (subsequently editor) present in the courtroom said he clearly heard Justice Jaya Pathirana telling his brother judges “let him go” over the court public address system.
It was only a few months ago that Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the leader of the Bodu Bala Sena, was convicted of what appeared to be a blatant act of contempt by making a fiery speech in a courtroom at Homagama where a case in which he was interested was being heard. The complainant in this matter was the judge himself. The monk was convicted on several counts preferred against him and sentenced to six years in jail. But he was pardoned by President Sirisena after serving a fraction of his sentence and subsequently ran for Parliament. Although there was a report that Ramanayake, speaking on the telephone to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe after his conviction had said that he would seek a pardon, this was said to be “in lighter vein”. Given the hellholes that our prisons are, whether ‘One Shot’ as the MP was styled in one of his movies, will ask for a pardon remains to be seen. He will continue to be an MP for six months after which his seat will be vacated. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, under whose Samagi Jana Balavegaya ticket Ramanayake returned to parliament for his second term, said last week that “we will stand by him;” but what that means in practical terms is not clear. Whether the actor is made of similar stuff as General (now Field Marshal) Sarath Fonseka, who steadfastly refused to seek a pardon but soldiered through a part of his prison term until he was granted an unasked pardon, is debatable. Ramanayake stands to be disqualified from standing for election for seven years if he serves four years in jail. That can end his political career.
All things are impermanent as the Buddha said. How this particular drama will pan out remains to be seen.
The coming colour
Though Basil Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa have resigned in that order, the Rajapaksa clan on the back of which much of Sri Lanka’s present woes are laid, remains alive and kicking and is very much a part of the country’s political equation. When then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed his first cabinet following GR’s stunning elevation of a one man show as the head of his government, there were no Rajapaksas in the new line up with several old faces dropped. But there was a reappearance of Shasheendra Rajapaksa among the recently appointed state ministers. Now there’s been a public statement by an SLPP grandee that heir apparent Namal baby is suitable for reappointment to the cabinet. There have also been calls for previous ministers to be taken back to the fold. With at least a semblance of normality restored on the fuel and gas front, those out in the cold seem to believe that the time is right to get back to business.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe is all too aware of the national mood and the near unanimous public opinion on the Rajapaksas and the jumbo cabinets we have known too often in our contemporary political history. But these are realities he must live with. Gotabaya is back in the country although it wasn’t that long ago that Wickremesinghe told the Wall Street Journal that he didn’t think the time was right for GR’s return. Though Basil is out of the country for a few months, it is very well known that he continues to pull many of the SLPP’s strings. Mahinda shows up in parliament now and then although he seldom speaks on the public domain. And Namal is knocking at the door.
Though Wickremesinghe very much desires to show the country that he’s running a tight ship at minimum cost to the taxpayer, until the time comes after February 2023 when he is empowered to dissolve parliament, he is the prisoner of the SLPP. It is that party which elected him to office and the Rajapaksas are very much in control there. It is all too clear that he must do what the discredited Rajapaksa party wants him to do at this point of time. Having dragged his feet a little bit about the appointment of the state ministers, he succumbed a few days ago and appointed as many as 38 of them. No effort whatever has been made to justify such appointments. What has only been attempted up to now is to say that they will draw no salary outside their parliamentary emoluments.
Egg has been publicly rubbed on the collective face of the government both by mainstream and social media demonstrating that the difference of a few thousand rupees in salaries drawn is irrelevant compared to the cost of taxpayer paid perks and privileges they will enjoy. Now the president is on the verge of appointing new ministers to the present 20-member cabinet and this is likely to be completed in the short term. The constitution permits the appointment of 30 ministers, which can go up if we have a national government, and fishing expeditions by aspirants are already visible. It has also been said in public that the previous ministers, many of them anathema to the people, must be reappointed. We need not labour the fact that already there are bad hats in office.
Not very long ago we saw former Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, the public face of then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s calamitous ban on chemical fertilizers, saying in parliament that he was not responsible for the ban. He said that fertilizer under his ministry was the subject of a state minister (Shasheendra Rajapaksa now back in office as State Minister of Irrigation). He even claimed that he had canvassed the ban with then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The whole country was privy to Aluthgamage’s passionate defence of the ban at that time and saw countless effigies on the minister torched by angry farmers. Yet he has the brass to attempt to distance himself from that action in which he fully participated, in what seems very much like an attempt to return to cabinet office.
President Wickremesinghe has made little headway in his attempt to form a National Government or Government of National Unity. There seems to be few buyers at political party level but individual defections for consideration of office is very much a part of this country’s political history. Already two Samagi Jana Balavegaya MPs, Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara are in the cabinet. So also seniors of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) like Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera. There are many more SLFPers who are state ministers and of the 14 SLFP MPs elected to the sitting parliament only five remain loyal to party leader Maithripala Sirisena. While some parties have begun domestic inquiries against rebels, few expect them to lose their seats in terms of existing anti-defection laws.
We will know very shortly what the new cabinet will look like and what the 2023 budget will bring for the country. It has already been made clear that the wealthy will have to suffer a major tax blow. Our contemporary history amply demonstrates that the tax administration is very good at squeezing already squeezed lemons and more of that will shortly be in evidence in the context of the prevailing massive tax evasion. That, together with the lack of equity which is a basic principle of taxation, is a long evident fact of life in this so-called democratic socialist republic ours.
Kekilles in overdrive
Saturday 24th September, 2022
Government politicians are behaving as if the media had done something far worse than the economic crimes they and their leaders have perpetrated against the nation. They are tearing into the media outfits that expose the untold suffering their government has inflicted on the public by bankrupting the country. In Parliament, on Thursday, some government worthies were beside themselves with rage over a story that a poor girl had recently brought some coconut kernel to school for lunch, and teachers had provided her with a decent midday meal. They claimed that the media reports at issue were false, and the principal of the school concerned had said no such thing was ever brought to her notice.
Sri Lankans usually do not believe anything that the media says about governments until it is officially denied. They know that the very opposite of what the powers that be make out to be the truth is true.
State employees are scared of politicians in power and do not dare antagonise the latter, as is public knowledge. The aforementioned school is situated in Minuwangoda, which is Minister Prasanna Ranatunga’s constituency. A few months ago, the Colombo High Court sentenced Minister Ranatunga to two years rigorous imprisonment suspended for five years, and fined him Rs. 25 million, in a case where he had been accused of threatening a businessman and demanding money. (He has appealed against the judgement.) The SLPP parliamentary group has an MP, who summoned a female school principal, abused her in raw filth and made her kneel before him when he was a Chief Minister; he was infuriated because she had refused to carry out an illegal order. Subsequently, the victim gave in to political pressure, and the culprits got off scot-free. One may also recall that during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, a Cabinet minister tied a public official to a tree as ‘punishment’ for being late for a meeting. The victim chose to grin and bear it. This is a country where a culture of impunity prevails; journalists are harassed or even vapourised for telling the truth; political dissent is violently suppressed; the long arm of the law has become a mere appendage of the government in power, and Justitia unashamedly cosies up to ruling party politicians. So, it is only natural that neither teachers nor the Education Department officials have vouched for the veracity of the news reports about the poor girl who had coconut kernel for lunch.
Having ruined the economy and turned the country into a hellhole, the government is in the same predicament as the proverbial cat which eased itself on a rock; it is making a determined yet futile effort to cover up the mess. The ruling party politicians have gone into overdrive to deny reports of their corrupt deals, rampant malnutrition and other such issues. They have even sought to challenge the reports issued by some UN agencies on poverty, food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition. They have insisted in Parliament that the situation here is not as bad as it is made out to be, but everybody knows that their cock-and-bull narratives are based on stories cooked up by a bunch of stooges in the garb of bureaucrats. Now, they have launched a witch-hunt against whistleblowers. The Health Ministry has initiated an inquiry against President of the Public Health Officers’ Association Upul Rohana, who has revealed that a consignment of Thriposha (a supplementary food item given free of charge to lactating mothers and undernourished children) was found to be contaminated with aflatoxin.
The SLPP politicians have overtaken King Kekille, who according to folk stories, always punished the innocent and spared the wrongdoers whenever he heard cases. He once had a goldsmith punished for a structural fault in a newly-built wall around his palace. On being questioned by the king, the bricklayer concerned said he had been distracted by an attractive woman who had been going past the work site several times a day. The woman, summoned to the royal court, said she had been compelled to make many trips to the goldsmith, who had delayed the delivery of her order. So, the king decided to punish the goldworker.The current rulers must be King Kekille’s descendants.
Barmecide feast and ‘Lotus heaven’
We are not short of leaders who claim to have laboured tirelessly to achieve national progress. Never do they miss an opportunity to make a public display of their patriotism, and boast of what they call the country’s achievements under their governments. But the abysmal report cards of these worthies have come to light again.
The Professional Forum of Physicians on Medical and Civil Rights (PFPMCR) has made a shocking revelation. It has said that according to the findings of a health survey conducted in the village of Walsapugala, as many as 80% of children there are affected by nutrition disorders with undernutrition and malnutrition among them amounting to 50% and 30% respectively. The plight of these children must have shaken the conscience of every Sri Lankan except those who have been helping themselves to public funds, which could have been used to feed hungry mouths.
The district where Walsapugala is situated is of significance. It is Hambantota, the stronghold of the Rajapaksa family, which has produced Prime Ministers, Presidents and Cabinet ministers. We bet our bottom dollar that no one connected to the Rajapaksas or other wealthy politicians from that area is among the malnourished children of Hambantota. The predicament of the children of Walsapugala represents in microcosm what has befallen the country under successive governments, especially the Rajapaksa administrations.
Hambantota is believed to have benefited from the Rajapaksas’ expensive infrastructural development drive; it boasts an international airport, an international conference hall, an international cricket ground and an international port. The road network there compares with the best in the world. But the living conditions of the people of Hambantota have not improved, at all, if the severe nutrition disorders affecting them is any indication. The same is true of their counterparts elsewhere.
If wasteful expenditure amounting to billions of dollars on useless infrastructural development projects had been curtailed and those funds channelled for agricultural development, children’s nutritional needs could have been taken care of. Many Sri Lankans however seem to enjoy the Barmecide feast their crafty rulers host. The PFPMCR revelation has come while Sri Lankans, troubled by the pangs of hunger, are feasting their eyes on a tall tower in Colombo. They are queuing up near the Lotus Tower to pay for elevator rides to the top of it and take a bird’s eye view of the slums and shanties in Colombo, among other things. A person who visited the tower has likened his experience to a trip to heaven, of all places!
One of the main causes of the current economic meltdown which has led to the prevailing food crisis, soaring inflation and a rise in the rate of malnutrition is heavy borrowings for mega projects that hardly yield any returns but have helped politicians and their cronies enrich themselves. Economic inequality has also contributed to the prevalent nutrition disorders. But those who are at the levers of power do not seem keen to curtail waste, sort out the economy and grant relief to the people. Instead, they are busy feathering their nests. The colony of leeches (read the Cabinet) is expected to expand further.
PFPMCR Chairman Dr. Chamal Sanjeewa has told the media that most schools in the Hambantota District have cancelled morning assemblies because a large number of students faint due to hunger. A similar situation prevails in other districts as well, according to the Ceylon Teachers’ Union.
Many educated, talented youth have already left the country, and others will do so, given half a chance. Long queues are seen near the visa sections of foreign embassies in Colombo. Children are starving and cannot stand erect, much less concentrate on their studies. There is no future for a country which does not care to look after its youth and children. Worryingly, political leaders are busy trying to retain power or regain it; religious leaders are worried about only one thing—the abolition of electricity subsidy for places of worship; business leaders are safeguarding their own interests at the expense of the public, and most people are looking forward to viewing Sri Pada from the top of the Lotus Tower!
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